Rugby Union: Reduced role frees Carling to reveal all: England's captain knuckles down to the challenge of being a Lions private. Steve Bale reports from Auckland

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HERE is an imponderable: how good would Will Carling be if he had not had the captaincy thrust upon him practically at the outset of his international career? It is imponderable no longer, because on the Lions tour of New Zealand we are about to find out.

If England had won the third Grand Slam that most of us had rashly predicted five months ago, we might never have known. But things went so awry that, with England's Five Nations flop, Carling's Lions captaincy aspirations disappeared. In the end he was relieved to be relieved of the burden by Gavin Hastings.

In fact, it could be argued that Carling thrives so much on the responsibility that, far from being diminished, he has been made a better player by constantly leading England - and he certainly would not deny it. At the same time, if ever a player deserved an opportunity to focus on himself for a change it is Carling, no longer the constant captain.

The beauty of it is that, for once in his rugby-playing life, he has to go out and win his place in the team - making tomorrow's match against North Harbour at Mount Smart Stadium as important, as crushingly high-pressure, as any he has ever played in. And that includes the World Cup final.

It is Carling's Lions debut, four years after he withdrew injured before the tour of Australia, and it will get worse as the three Tests inexorably approach, but Carling, the 27-year-old centre with a sumptuous talent, knows his performance will be scrutinised as closely as that of anyone in the party. 'People get it wrong when they think that because I'm England captain I'm automatically selected,' he said yesterday.

'So I don't feel any different with the Lions in New Zealand from how I do with England back home. It's a challenge to get in the Lions Test team, but I honestly believe it's no different with England.' All right, he obviously has to maintain a level of form if England are to pick him, but shall we say that in that context he at least has a head start?

Apparently not. 'Once you take it for granted you are out, because of the way that sort of attitude affects your play.' Then there are Jeremy Guscott, Scott Hastings and Scott Gibbs to contend with. 'There's more competition on a Lions tour on which we have three other very talented centres, the best in Britain, and you have to be at the top of your game to stand a chance of getting in the Tests.'

For Carling this process will begin - but, he sincerely hopes, does not end - with tomorrow's critically important game, when he and Scott Gibbs will face the All Black centre pairing of Walter Little and Frank Bunce. Welcome, or haere mai as they say hereabouts, to New Zealand.

'It's not make or break for Will Carling's Lions Test place but it would be useful to get off on the right foot against those two. But you shouldn't read too much into it. Knowing Geoff Cooke and Ian McGeechan (manager and coach), I'm certain one game won't get anyone picked or dropped, and I hope I'll get two or three games before they make up their minds.'

This is not the sort of talk that would be expected from Carling in his England mode, but then this tour is such an unfamiliar context for him that everyone, let alone the man himself, is still trying to get used to him as one of the lads. No post-match speeches, no separate hotel-room, no responsibility beyond that which every other Lion must make to the collective effort.

'It's a purely selfish thing, I suppose,' he said. 'Without the responsibility of captaincy I can concentrate on my own performance and with so many gifted players around me I really don't have to worry about anything else. I have to admit that's a pleasant change.

'On the other hand, I've never agreed that the captaincy has affected my play with England. But after five years as captain I'd almost forgotten what it's like to be without it; I had seven games in my first year as an international, and that was it - since then it's always been the role of captain for me. I love it and enjoy it, but I do appreciate the time I now have without it.'

Carling's career in the England ranks lasted from January 1988 until his appointment as captain the following October. Since then England have won 26 of their 35 Tests under his leadership, done two Grand Slams and reached the World Cup final. If this is testimony to his powers of command, he would prefer for now to forget it - in the expectation that a spell without the cares of captaincy will make him a better captain.

'Playing in New Zealand is a hell of a challenge anyway and I know I can learn a lot from the other players and Ian McGeechan. It's a chance to work on areas of my game that need attention. There'd be something wrong if I didn't return a better captain.

'It's an honour to captain the Lions and there's no way anyone says no to it. But I've been captain of England for five years and I think there was a sense that it was better for me not to be in the spotlight and to have the chance to enjoy the company of the England boys, as well as those from the other countries.'

There speaks one who as captain has perforce had to distance himself from his England team. The icon status and soaring public profile which may be good for his bank balance but have exacerbated the sense of the captain up there on a pedestal and the rest - most of them, anyway - somewhere down below.

No one can accuse him of that in New Zealand, where Carling realises he has to prove himself just as much as everyone else. 'This is the biggest challenge I've ever had as a player,' he said. 'This is the hardest country in which to play and be respected, and I'm very aware that I've never played out here.

'It's very different from playing for England, which is an ongoing thing that lasts a number of years. This is a one-off experience: you come together, you play and you go away, all in a couple of months. It does bring more pressure but what matters is the way you view pressure. I'd like to think that the more pressure comes on the more I can perform.'

We shall see. By Carling's standards last season was as disappointing personally as it was for England collectively. If the New Zealand newspapers are to be believed, down-to-earth Kiwis do not take kindly to his intrinsic Englishness and as a player he seems to be regarded less highly than he deserves.

The latter he can cope with: 'Here I haven't got a reputation. I have to earn it by my performance on the field.' As for the former, he quite rightly demands the chance to prove himself as a person as much as player. 'I'm not an English gentleman and I've never professed to be,' he said. 'And it isn't particularly pleasant if people have an impression of me which is completely wrong.

'All I'd like to think is that people who've never seen me play and have never come across me bide their time. In two months' time, judge me on what has happened while I have been on tour with the Lions; then if they don't like that, fine. But if I play well I will win their respect and that's all I want.'

And then, after all that, it will be back to being captain of England.

(Photograph omitted)